One of a series of articles on the history of the Balboa Reservoir.
By Amy O’Hair
From the end of WWII until the mid-1980s, there were several ill-fated attempts to fund the building of the Balboa Reservoir; it was dug and paved but not finished in the late 1950s. Its real life during these years was as an asset to City College, first as West Campus, then as parking for students, faculty, and staff.
But it also functioned as a place for a host of casual uses by local residents, some legal and some not: teen drivers, go-cart races, runners and walkers, Riordan football team training, underage drinking, motorcycle berm-jumping, police safety training, and more. No city agency seriously considered housing during these years; after WWII there were still plenty of empty lots in the city on which to build.
Making Wartime WAVES
In June 1944 the SPFUC discussed the matter of leasing the reservoir land to the US Government, in line with the US President’s edict that any unused public land be put to wartime use. The Navy was given a lease which was to end six months after the “national emergency.” A large compound comprising many buildings was quickly built for the United States Naval Reserve Women’s Reserve, known under the acronym WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The facility opened in July 1945. It included housing for over a thousand enlisted and officer women, two-story buildings, and an auditorium, with all the needed water, sewer, electricity, and gas infrastructure.
It was an impressive effort.
The lease was for 29 acres at about $100 a month ($1200 now), and left out some land along Ocean Avenue and a portion on the north that was about to be purchased by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of SF for a boys’ high school. (More on this below).
The photo above shows that the compound extended from close to Ocean Ave, with an entrance at Lee Avenue, over most of the reservoir property, north to a line level with the north exit of Cloud Circle onto Phelan Ave, well clear of the land where Riordan High School would be built in 1950.
Thousands of women serving in the Navy passed through the barracks at “USS Balboa,” as it was called. There were living quarters, recreation and entertainment facilities, a mess hall, stores, a sickbay, a laundry, even a beauty salon—as well as offices for administration, records, communications, and maintenance.
At the end of its short life, some of the women there created a delightful booklet that documented what happened and the names of women who passed through. Here are some photographs from it. Download the whole booklet here (PDF).
Included there was a “Separation Unit” that helped women transition to civilian life, providing informative movies, interviews and lectures, with counseling for family, financial, legal, or personal issues.
The facility was decommissioned in September 1946.
West Campus Windfall
When the Navy left, the SFPUC leased the lot along with all the numerous buildings and infrastructure to City College of San Francisco (then SF Junior College). This event was marked by a ceremony, turning over the site to the college.
A description from a later history of City College: “[S]even of its fifteen buildings were converted to classrooms, three became dormitories for veterans, one was utilized as housing for fifty married veterans, and four were remodeled into offices. In addition, the 1000-seat auditorium and spacious cafeteria on the site were immediately put to use.” Also housed there was one of the college libraries.
It was a boon for the fledging public educational institution. The Ocean Campus for CCSF had been established before the War on the park land between Phelan Ave and the old railroad tracks. Now the school had to contend with a huge uptick in students flocking to it, including returning GIs. The new facilities were called West Campus and became the center of student activity, remaining so for nearly a decade.
There was a student activity center with a soda fountain and a jukebox for dances. Another building housed darkroom facilities for the photography students. Later there was a ceramics studio. The capacious auditorium hosted frequent concerts, variety shows, and plays.
The quiet sale of a quarter of the reservoir land
Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco bought the most northerly 400 feet of the Balboa Reservoir lot. In 1933 the church had already bought the most northerly 300 feet, then in 1947 a 100-foot adjacent strip was added to the lot, making the first ‘cut’ in the original 42-acre property. It is an area about 400 by 1022 feet, equivalent to about three residential blocks.
The total price for the 9 ½ acre piece was $50,000 ($693K now), about $5300 an acre. The Archbishop Riordan High School for boys was built on the site in 1949-50.
This lot (3180/002) comprises about 22% of the original Balboa Reservoir property. It was the largest piece that the SFPUC had sold off, until a portion was granted to City College in the 1990s in a land swap with the City.
There is some evidence that the SFPUC did not willingly part with this large slice of their land. In 1952, in response to a request by the Superintendent of Schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of SF for even more reservoir land next to the school, the SFPUC Manager of Utilities James H Turner declined to sell any more of it, and in passing wrote:
“As you know, we sold you the 400-ft. frontage on Phelan Avenue, although we would have much prefer [sic] to have kept it for reservoir purposes.”
This suggests the sale was forced on the SFPUC by some other agency or individual in City government. I found no public discussion whatever of this sale of public land. Perhaps a testament to the sway of the Catholic Church in midcentury San Francisco.
Quietly dispensing with a large chunk of public land at a discount to a political friend is just what Mayor Dianne Feinstein will be accused of forty years later—but by then such things no longer happened so easily outside of public knowledge. (More in next article on the reservoir.)
Construction of the high school dead-ended forever three residential streets—Hazelwood, Colon, and Wildwood—which the original developers of Westwood Park likely foresaw as eventually being connected to future adjacent neighborhoods.
The school was dedicated in September 1950. The athletic field on the west side of the school lot was finished sometime soon after this.
Selling Off More Land
The SFPUC was more upfront about their aim to sell the southerly 150-foot-deep strip along Ocean Avenue for commercial purposes, first discussing it in September 1947, revisiting the matter during 1952, and then rescinding the request until the needed rezoning could be arranged. By about 1953 the SFPUC was set to sell.
There were other changes along the Ocean Ave side. By May 1952, the Phelan Loop had been put in place as a terminus for Muni lines.
SF Fire Department’s Station 15, on the corner of Ocean and Phelan Avenues, opened in September 1957.
However, both of these are located on SFPUC-owned land, then as now. (The Phelan Loop was reconfigured around the fire station in 2013 to make way for development on Ocean Ave.)
The next piece to be cut and sold was Lot 3, to Safeway Stores Inc in June 1954. This was located on the southwest corner of the reservoir lot, fronting Ocean Avenue. (See property map above marked with color tints.) For this, the SFPUC got a much higher price: the 1.84 acres sold for $160,000 ($1.5M now). This price per acre is about 16 times what the Church paid for its cut—although clearly the value of commercial land along Ocean is appreciably higher than the Riordan High School lot.
Safeway opened their store here in 1957, and closed it in 1977, when it became a Grand Auto Supply, later Kragen Auto Parts. It was a medium-size store, smaller than the Safeway on Monterey Blvd, surrounded by a parking lot. A bit of it can be seen in this photo of the Phelan Loop from 1968.
Here is an aerial shot from later, which shows the Safeway building (by then Kragen).
So by the mid-1950s the original 42-acre reservoir site had lost almost 10 acres on the north and effectually three or four along Ocean Ave.
The End of West Campus
Through the late 1940s and early 1950s, while CCSF was getting good use out of the middle 29 acres, the SF Public Utilities Commission continued to plan for the eventual construction of the reservoir, citing the growing water consumption in the city.
In 1955, the SFPUC finally put an end to West Campus. It set the date for the end of the CCSF lease to 31 Dec 1955, as part of plans to begin construction of a 75-million-gallon, two-basin reservoir on the land in 1956. Part of the rationale was based in Cold War thinking: SF needed a supply of water protected from nuclear fallout.  The seventeen buildings, covered walkways, and auditorium were demolished about May 1956, after almost a decade of use by the college.
College enrollment generally had dropped after the post-War boon. But the dip was temporary, and in particular, public higher education enrollment would steadily increase in the 1960s and 1970s.  One has to question the wisdom of eviscerating such useful educational infrastructure and property. Later, CCSF’s dearth of land was one of its besetting shortcomings, historically having a lower land-to-student ratio than any other community college in the state.
However, SFPUC wanted their reservoir. Unfortunately it was building for a boom that was already over; San Francisco population would steadily fall for the coming decades. When the uptick came in the 1980s, it would be housing, not water infrastructure, that was in short supply.
Although the CCSF administrative offices moved out to main campus buildings before the deadline got close, there were activities and events on West Campus up until the very end of the college’s lease. At the end of the 1954-55 academic year the college’s 20th Annual Festival was held there, an event the president of the school pronounced “the most successful of such events ever held at the college.” Enterprising photography and drama students were shooting a film in west campus right up to the end of that year.
Dig, Baby, Dig
First task for the SFPUC was excavation and embankment. In August 1956, Polombo Construction Co was awarded the contract, for $363K ($3.3m now). The job was finished by July 1957.
The SFPUC minutes noted the “many complaints” of nearby residents who objected repeatedly to the use of blasting explosives for excavation. The SFPUC went to the trouble of planting 80,000 square feet of ice plant, “to alleviate the dust and sand nuisance to nearby residents.” (Ice plant, a nonnative plant, can still be seen on the reservoir.) Much of the rock used to create the embankments (berms) was gotten from the Sunset Reservoir.
In October 1957, the SFPUC awarded a contract to Fay Construction Co for the asphalt lining, grading, and drains, the next steps in the reservoir construction. The cost was $245K ($2.2m now). That was finished by November 1958.
What a beautiful job.
And that was the end of any actual work on the Balboa Reservoir, as reservoir, forever.
The Five-Million-Dollar Parking Lot
Immediately, half of this vast swath of expensively asphalted land became just what it looked like and was fated to be for the next 60 years: a parking lot for City College students, staff, and faculty.
The SFPUC leased the North Basin to CCSF for parking, and later promised that when the reservoir was finished, the school would have the right to a parking lot on the roof. Later, in the 1990s, South Basin was also leased for CCSF parking (see next post). Parking capacity helped the college grow in enrollment, catering as it is did, and still does, to people who have other responsibilities like families and jobs.
That said, the parking capacity of the reservoir property has never accommodated anything more than a small fraction of the total student enrollment; most students take public transit, even before Bart, and have done since the college began. Here’s a map from 1940 showing the crosstown bus no.1 going to SF Junior College.
This photo was taken looking west. It might be said to illustrate the feelings of many in the City College faculty and administration who in later years came to see their school’s destiny as laying before them, across the road on reservoir land. What better place to expand, especially after construction of the I-280 freeway in the 1960s made the eastern side of the campus inhospitable, inaccessible, and unaesthetic.
Berm Jumpers and Teen Drivers
Open as it was on weekends when there were no classes, the now-paved basins were put to the various casual uses of the sort that go unmeasured and generally escape the historical record: teen drivers and other learners, motorcyclists, go-cart racers, runners, dog-walkers, bicyclists, school-cutters, underage-drinkers, open-space thinkers, etc.
Those things that did make it into the news were few and far between: The VW Club of California held their “The Wheel Deal Gymkhana” event at the reservoir in 1960 and 1961, sanctioned by the Northern California Sports Car Council. A gymkhana is a short manmade obstacle course that is timed, where a sports car driver demonstrates maneuvering skills.
The SF Chamber of Commerce held an auto safety checkup event at the reservoir in 1963. In 1974, the March of Dimes held their walkathon.
In this photo, the SF Police Dept is holding an auto safety demonstration class with what looks like a big class of bobby-socked teens. How long does it take for a car travelling 30 miles-an-hour to skid to a stop? The uniformed men are measuring the pavement to make their point, while the teacher looms over the kids keeping them in line.
Local Oral History: ‘What I did at the reservoir’
One women who grew up in Sunnyside in the 1960s recalls roller-skating in the reservoir as a child; “It was especially fun when it rained and it would have a few feet of water. We would go through it and get all wet! … And, of course, learning to drive.” Another local says he had a great time running his motorcycle up and over the middle berm.
Apparently Riordan students regularly found it a conveniently dark place for some underage drinking sessions. An Aptos student in the 1960s said, “It was pretty dark there. You could go there to make out, but I never did.” One Sacred Heart graduate recalls being brought there by friends and “being out of our element and the area considered pretty sketchy at night back then, but we went. It was very dark which was good and bad. Good for getting closer as couples, but Phelan Loop often had random people, drunk and looking for trouble.”
After jogging became a popular pastime, it was common to see runners circling around the perimeter berms. One local mom recalls, “St Finn Barr parents used to meet and walk around the berm on weekends for exercise and to socialize a bit.” Another resident remembers: “Walking, running, bicycle riding, dog walkers, and Tai Chi, were all common early morning activities on the old berm.” One local man began walking around the reservoir to deal with chronic back pain, and when that was too boring, he began running, which ended up changing his body and his life in a good way.
Between the demolition of the buildings and the construction of the reservoir, one local recalls, “I remember playing with my friends on a huge field where the reservoirs would be constructed. My friends and I all went to Sunnyside [Elementary School]. I can remember looking up to Mount Davidson to see if I could locate my house. I was eight or nine years old then. When I was fifteen, my Dad let me drive the family car in the reservoir.”
A man who grew up in Diamond Heights recalls: “My father bought a gas-powered ‘go-cart’ with a 5HP engine for my 7th birthday. I had a helmet that was painted the same colors as a CHP helmet and I’d take all my friends around the reservoir.” (Do you have your own memories? Email SunnysideHistory@gmail.com.)
More False Starts
After the paving in 1958, the SFPUC continued its efforts to complete the half-finished job. Water bonds were passed by voters in 1961 and 1972, and for years after each of these funding measures, the SFPUC put money aside to finish the reservoir, and yet never managed to do the job.
The final push was in January 1977, when the SFPUC declared “In 1977-78 work will commence on the Balboa Reservoir and pump station, which has a $6 million combined cost. Failure to do these jobs will result in an increased escalation of prices.” By July of the following year, the Chronicle announced the effective end of any plans to finish the reservoir.
Apparently the high rate of inflation in the 1970s, coupled with the SFPUC’s mistake in not doing a proper initial environmental impact study, had by the end of the decade pushed the cost up to an exorbitant price.
Bus Yard? Not in my backyard.
In those years when the north basin was used for parking and the SFPUC was holding onto its reservoir construction money, the south basin sat empty, with no official use. No wonder that SFMTA started eyeing it for a bus yard about 1968, when the disruptions to Muni operations caused by the construction of the Balboa Park Bart Station were first being felt.
By 1976 there was a full-fledged plan to house hundreds of diesel buses on the south basin land. There came such swift neighborhood resistance to the idea, demonstrated at a public meeting in May, that the SFMTA immediately backed down. Noise, pollution, and a reduction in property values were the focus of objections.
Later that month, the editor of the Sunnyside News, Ken Hoegger, reported that in addition to 265 buses, Muni planned to build offices there for 365 employees on the site. In this newsletter of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), we also learn that this effort to resist Muni’s bus yard was spearheaded by Jesse David Wall, CCSF physics teacher and SNA past-president, by putting together a coalition of neighborhood associations from Westwood Park, Miraloma Park, Mission Terrace, Oceanview-Merced-Ingleside (OMI), and others. As we’ll see in the next post, Wall’s leadership was critical in the defeat of proposed housing for the reservoir site in the mid-to-late 1980s.
The bus yard matter was even investigated by the civil grand jury, which noted: “Two hundred and fifty well-prepared and determined people faced three members of the TSCC [Transportation Study Coordination Committee] …. The meeting ended when the three members voted to have their consultants … look elsewhere to put the Muni buses.”
This was just the first fight over the uses of the ever-dry reservoir. In the next post I’ll cover the tug-of-war over housing at the site.
The End of a Wet Dream
After the dead-end attempts to use water-bond money in the late 1970s, the SFPUC reallocated the designated funds in 1981 and 1983 to other projects, putting a practical end to the matter of building the reservoir. Nonetheless, even as late as 1994, the SFPUC continued to count at least one basin as a “future reservoir.”
The two-thirds of the original reservoir land now left in SFPUC hands was on the cusp of a new era: In 1984 Mayor Dianne Feinstein would propose using some of it for housing, sparking a war of voter propositions. Read this story and more in the next post:
My sincerest thanks to Harry Bernstein for generously sharing his research on the Balboa Reservoir for this article.
Many thanks to those who contributed to this series of articles: David Gallagher; Andre Guillory, Office of the Assessor-Recorder; Ken Hollenbeck; Oanh Mai, CCSF Archivist; Natalie Mattei, Albertsons Companies; Andrew Sherman; Jesse David Wall; and the local residents and neighbors who kindly responded to my queries about their unofficial uses of the reservoir space over the decades.
Read the Guardsman, the newspaper of City College: https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22City+College+of+San+Francisco%22&sort=-date&page=2
Read the Chronicle (sign in with SF public Library card: http://ezproxy.sfpl.org/login?url=http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/search/nb?p=AMNEWS&t=pubname%3A142051F45F422A02%257CSFCB%21Multiple%2BPublications&b=pubname
- SFPUC Minutes, 5 June 1944, resolution 6179. ↑
- Description of plans in SFPUC minutes, 5 Jun 1944. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1944sfpu#page/n313/mode/2up/ ↑
- The reference above in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors stipulated that the southerly 225 feet would be excluded; In 1947 when the SFPUC transfers the lease to CCSF, it excludes the northerly 100 feet. ↑
- “USS Balboa” USN Barracks (WR), Balboa Park, San Francisco, Commissioned July 1945, Decommissioned September 1946. Cover: USS Balboa Ship’s Log. Sp(E)(RW)1c Jean M. Boulet, ed. San Francisco: Bertrands Lithography and Printing Co., [1946?]. 52 pp., white paper cover with black printing, 28.6 x 22 cm, photos, ports. TIL. This facility was a barracks for WAVES and nurses. PDF provided courtesy of Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian at the Maritime Research Center of the National Park Service (Fort Mason, Building E, 3rd floor). A copy of the PDF was provided to me by Harry Bernstein. ↑
- Austin White, “From Dream To Reality: City College Of San Francisco: A Short History,” 2005. https://www.ccsf.edu/en/about-city-college/marketing_publications/history_of_city_college/_jcr_content/contentparsys/documentlink/file.res/History%20of%20City%20College%20of%20San%20Francisco.pdf [Editor’s note, 2020: this document was removed from the CCSF website; You can download it from here instead: https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WHITE_Austin_History_of_City_College_of_San_Francisco_2005.pdf ↑
- “College Library Open 8 am – 5 pm,” Guardsman, 13 Feb 1951, p4. ↑
- Despite official histories of CCSF’s use of West Campus putting the last year of occupation as 1954, there were events and activities in the buildings and grounds until the end of the 1954-55 academic year, according to articles in the Guardsman. ↑
- Letter dated 5 Mar 1952, from Rev James N Brown, Supt of Schools, Archdiocese of San Francisco to James H Turner, Manager of Utilities, Public Utilities Commission, City and County of San Francisco, form the SFPUC archives, courtesy of Harry Bernstein. ↑
- Excellent book on midcentury SF and the Roman Catholic Church: William Issel, Church and State in the City Catholics and Politics in Twentieth-Century San Francisco, 2012. ↑
- “Archbishop Mitty Dedicates new High School,” SF Chronicle, 18 Sep 1950, p3. ↑
- SFPUC minutes for: 2 Sep 1947, Resolution 8419; 4 Aug 1952, Resolution 12,693; 27 Oct 1952, Resolution 12,907. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1952sfpu#page/n811/mode/2up/. ↑
- http://guardiansofthecity.org/sffd/firehouses/current/1000_ocean.html ↑
- Sale Ledger, SF Office of the Assessor-Recorder, for Block 3180, 2 Jun 1954. ↑
- Email exchange with Natalie Mattei, a real estate manager for Albertson’s Companies, which bought Safeway in 2015. ↑
- SFPUC annual report, 1949-1953, p13. https://archive.org/stream/annualreportsanf1949sanf#page/116/mode/2up/ ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 14 Mar 1955. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1955sfpu#page/n211/mode/ ↑
- “Roundup of Bay Political Activities,” SF Chronicle, 1 Nov 1961, p6. ↑
- Editor’s note, SF Chronicle, 16 May 1956, p23. ↑
- “120 years of American Education: A Statistical Report,” National Center for Education Statistics, US Dept of Education, 1993, p65-66. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf ↑
- Louis Freedberg, “Approval Expected on City College Land Swap,” SF Chronicle, p16; Madeline Mueller, “Balboa Background,” SF Independent, 27 May 1987, p3. ↑
- Nice chart: https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/4660089/Population-Growth_SF.0.jpg ↑
- Guardsman, 8 Jun 1955, p4. ↑
- Guardsman, 25 May 1955, p2. ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 20 Aug 1956 and 30 July 1957. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1957sfpu#page/n995/mode/2up/ & https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1957sfpu#page/n985/mode/2up/ ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 26 Nov 1957. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1957sfpu#page/n1445/mode/ ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 8 Oct 1957 and 5 Nov 1958. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1957sfpu#page/n1237/mode/2up/ & https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1958sfpu#page/n1225/mode/2up ↑
- “San Francisco Capital Improvements Program,” SF Planning Dept, Oct 1967, p170. The Board of Education agreed the previous January in principle to share the costs of constructing a roof over the reservoir to accommodate parking. ↑
- Maureen O’Shea, via email, January 2018; Tim Van Raam @novatoan, via Twitter, January 2018. ↑
- Diana Kipping, via phone conversation, February 2018; Woody LaBounty, via email, February 2018. ↑
- Monica Collins, via NextDoor, January 2018; Jim McCormick, via NextDoor, January 2018; Andrew Sherman, via personal conversation, 1999. ↑
- Greg Gaar, via email, February 2018. ↑
- Jack Hart, via email, February 2018. ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 10 Jan 1977, p77-3. https://archive.org/stream/2minutes1977sanf#page/4/mode/2up/ ↑
- Gerald Adams, “The Anatomy of two PUC fund-wasters,” SF Chronicle, 9 Apr 1978, pA9. ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 2 Jun 1968. The SFPUC recommended that parking space for 110 Muni buses be made in the south basin. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1968sfpu#page/n495/mode/2up/ ↑
- Sunnyside News, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, Spring 1976, p1. The archives of this neighborhood newspaper are in the process of being prepared for the Internet Archive’s Neighborhood Newspapers of San Francisco collection. ↑
- “1974-75 Investigatory Grand Jury Reports,” City and County of San Francisco, p96. https://archive.org/stream/investigatorygra197475197576cali#page/96/mode/2up ↑
- SFPUC Resolutions and Minutes, 10 Mar 1981, Resolutions 81-0102; and 26 Apr 1983, Resolution 3-0191 https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1983sfpu#page/83399/mode/2up/ ↑
- “A History of the Municipal Water Department and the Hetch-Hetchy System,” San Francisco Water and Power, 1994, p21. https://archive.org/stream/sanfranciscowate1994hans#page/20/mode/2up ↑